Jewish Tours

Buenos Aires, Argentina


In the 21st Century

As stated, the number of Jews in Brazil in 2005 was estimated at between 96,700 and 130,000. In spite of the vitality of Jewish institutional life in Brazil, there were hundreds of Jews who did not belong to any Jewish body. There were organized Jewish federations in the States of Amazônia, Bahia, Brasilia (Federal District), Ceará, Minas Gerais, Pará, Paraná, Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Norte, Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina and São Paulo. The main Jewish communities were located in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Porto Alegre, concentrating more than 80% of the Jews in the country, followed by Curitiba, Belo Horizonte, Recife, and Salvador. In Manaus, Brasilia, Fortaleza, Natal, and Florianópolis, the Jewish communities numbered a few dozen families. Out of the 5,560 Brazilian municipalities there were very small Jewish groups in a few dozen of them.

Although constituting less than 0.01% of the total population of the country, Jewish communities were very active and the Jews made a notable impact in such areas as the economy, culture, professional life, and the arts. The Jewish population generally belonged to the middle and upper classes, which constituted a minority within society at large. In cities such as São Paulo (which boasted over 11% of the national income), the Jews constituted 0.6% of the total population, but this percentage was certainly much higher in the strata with high social, political, economic, and cultural visibility in a country where large sections of the population live in the margins of consumer society as second-class citizens.

The state policy of noninterference in religious freedom, social mobility, cultural tolerance, and the economic and urban development of the country resulted in the development of their communities and very successful integration in the middle and upper reaches of society for the majority of Jews. The economic and social crisis which began in the 1980s resulted in poverty for many of the Jews, but they were succored by a solid network of Jewish community aid and social assistance. Jewish social assistance institutions, hospitals, and sports clubs were very active. The Albert Einstein Hospital, in São Paulo, was one of the best in the country and the Hebraica club was one of the most important on the continent. Three social institutions in São Paulo, Unibes, Lar das Crianças da CIP, and Ciam were models of social assistance both inside and outside the community, maintaining important partnerships with local governments.

Although Jews individually played an important part in several areas of Brazilian culture, the depth and intensity of Jewish cultural production can be said to have been in decline since the 1970s, despite the great number of events produced by Jewish organizations.

The Arquivo Histórico Judaico Brasileiro, in São Paulo, maintained the most important historical archive and Jewish library, including a Yiddish section. The Instituto Cultural Israelita Marc Chagall, in Porto Alegre (1986), the Instituto Histórico Israelita Mineiro, in Belo Horizonte, the Arquivo Judaico de Pernambuco, in Recife (1992), and the small Museu Judaico, in Rio de Janeiro (1998), housed historical documentation and promoted cultural activities. No central cultural organization existed in the country. The Jewish communities operated with almost complete independence, with little interaction or mutual connection. The communities functioned more as a conglomerate of institutions, despite the foundation of state federations and a National Confederation, CONIB, whose activities, since its origin, have been limited to several important issues.

Cultural life was associated with social life and developed in the clubs and organizations. In São Paulo, a highly developed cultural network had its main centers in Hebraica, B'nai B'rith, CIP, and the Casa de Cultura de Israel; in Rio de Janeiro, in ARI and ASA. There were also other clubs in São Paulo (Macabi), Rio de Janeiro and Salvador.

The most important Brazilian Jewish writer was Moacyr Scliar, a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and one of the outstanding contemporary Brazilian authors. Many critics see important Jewish traces in the work of Clarice Lispector , one of the most important modern Brazilian writers, born in the Ukraine, particularly in her book A Hora da Estrela, a classic work of Brazilian literature. Among the writers and chroniclers who wrote about the Jewish experience in Brazil, one can cite Samuel Rawett , Jacó Guinsburg, Alberto Dines, Cíntia Moscovich, and also Samuel Malamud, Eliezer Levin, and Samuel Reibcheid. Brazil had a small, but significant movement of writers who wrote in Yiddish, among them Meir Kucinsky and Rosa Palatnik. There was also a small but significant number of memoirs of immigration, with several books on the agricultural colonies in Rio Grande do Sul, and equally memoirs of the Holocaust published by survivors who had immigrated to Brazil. The writerStefan Zweig , a refugee of Nazism in Brazil, wrote Brasil, País do Futuro, praising Brazil. Perspectiva was the main Jewish publishing house in Brazil, directed by Jacó Guinsburg; other publishing houses were Sefer (which ran a Jewish bookstore in São Paulo), Mayanot, and small religious publishing companies.

There were Jewish television programs in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, one of them, Mosaico na TV, was the longest running program on Brazilian television. The Jewish written press lost much of its circulation and turned inward to the community. Most of the main organizations had their own newsletters.

Among artists distinctly reflecting Jewish culture in their works, Lasar Segall was one of most important representatives of Modernism and Expressionism in Brazil and the world. In São Paulo, the Museum Lasar Segall housed his works and a permanent exhibit, A Festival of Jewish Cinema, was annually organized in the Hebraica club in São Paulo jointly with movie theaters in town. There were also courses in Hebrew at the state universities in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, where a Center of Jewish Studies in the University of São Paulo offered, besides a graduate course on Hebrew literature, Master's and Ph.D. degrees in Jewish studies.

The Jewish community in Brazil did not have a central rabbinate. Each of the two major cities had several rabbis who seldom met. The larger cities had both Sephardi and Ashkenazi synagogues. The Conservative/Liberal denomination of Judaism had the largest number of members: in Rio de Janeiro, Associação Religiosa Israelita (ARI), with around 800 families and a woman as second rabbi, and the Congregação Judaica do Brasil headed by Rabbi Nilton Bonder; in São Paulo, Congregação Israelita Paulista and the Comunidade Shalom with 350 families and a female rabbi in 2005. The Orthodox movement, with many synagogues in the country and most of the synagogues in São Paulo, had a growing interest in Brazil, exemplified by Beit Chabad in São Paulo, and in the main Jewish communities around the country. The Beit Chabad organizational structure assists small communities, sending rabbis to visit them weekly and supplying whatever is needed for worship. In Petrópolis, State of Rio de Janeiro, the Orthodox Mahane Yisrael Yeshivah was in operation.

Jewish youth movements were still active, but with less adherence than in the 1930–80 period, when they maintained an active Zionist and ḥalutz ideology. The active Zionist movements were transformed in "identity ties" with Israel. Jewish youth also met in clubs and synagogues. Assimilation was a major issue, but difficult to measure, particularly because of the increasing number of mixed marriages and conversions, where the couples remain close to the Jewish community. The social and religious permeability of Brazilian culture makes it easy for the families to maintain more than one religion.

The terrorist attacks against the Israel embassy in 1992 and the Jewish Community – AMIA, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1994, made the Jewish communities in Brazil more cautious. They committed themselves to improving the security systems protecting Jewish institutions in a country where daily violence is on the upswing and affects the Brazilian population as a whole.

In 2001 the federal government, through the Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional (IPHAN), declared the site occupied by the synagogue of Recife (capital of Pernambuco State) during the Dutch domination in the 17th century a "federal historic site." A museum was erected in the place where the first Jewish community settled in Brazil. The "Rua dos Judeus" (Street of the Jews) and the location of the ancient synagogue became the historic tourist attractions of the city.

In 2000 a demonstration in São Paulo led by Hebraica attracted about 10,000 people supporting Israel against terrorism and also supporting the peace process. It was the largest public demonstration of the Jewish community since the festivities celebrating the foundation of Israel in 1948.

In 2002, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, leader of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party), was elected president. For the first time in Brazilian history a left-wing party won the national elections with a social program whose main objective was eradicating hunger in the country. The PT already governed cities like São Paulo, Porto Alegre, Belo Horizonte. The government's political support of the Palestinians and the Arab cause did not turn into official hostility toward Israel. President Lula visited Israel before being elected and proclaimed repeatedly his admiration for the country.

Some Jews joined the higher ranks of the federal government elected in 2002, including the spokesman of the presidency, André Singer, and special advisers to the president Clara Ant and Oded Grajew, among others. The Workers' Party (PT) maintained an officially constituted "Jewish committee" for a number of years. In 2003, President Lula, the governor of the State of São Paulo, and the mayor of the city of São Paulo were present at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Hebraica club, the largest Jewish institution in Brazil – a clear sign of the importance of the Jewish community in São Paulo and Brazil.

In 2005 the official delegation accompanying President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to Rome for the burial of Pope John Paul II consisted of only 16 people, among whom was Rabbi Henry I. Sobel of the liberal CIP. This fact shows the importance and the official and public visibility of the Jewish population in Brazil.

In 2005 the main concerns of Jews in Brazil related neither to social integration nor to prejudice in a country where they could develop and progress freely, consolidating prosperous and well-integrated communities. Their main concern was the preservation of their Jewish identity in a country whose tolerance, both official and public, presents new challenges for a community searching for ways to preserve its uniqueness in the absence of external pressure.

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